Using Participatory Theater against Gender-Based Violence

All around the world, violence against women by men is a prevalent issue. In India, it’s even a more pressing concern. You can find multiple articles about how common the problem is and all the statistics. But what about the solutions to curb this issue? Ending violence within homes is relevant to everyone in society: women and men of all ages. The top-to-bottom strategy is not working. Rights of women are recognized in India’s laws, but there is often the law and then the actual execution of said law.

A creative strategy being employed to work directly with the community is interactive theatre or participatory theatre to change community attitudes on violence against women. Interactive theatre is different than theatrical performances, but they still are used to work against gender-based violence. For example, UN Women partnered with the Bureau of Gender Affairs in Dominica to train theatre practitioners to address this issue. By highlighting social issues, performance artists can express problems and negative behaviors in a way that audience members can relate to. When these performances are community-focused and led, they can inspire creative solutions (UN Caribbean). 

To better understand how participatory theatre is unique, we can turn to Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, individuals instrumental in developing the principles that are used for communities all over the world struggling to overcome poverty and political violence. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1974), Paulo Freire discussed how any education program dealing with the realities of oppressed communities should not have the goal of simply learning but instead of taking action to transform the social injustices. His book was released in a time of dictatorship and harsh suppression of democratic freedoms in his native Brazil. Around the same time, Augusto Boal disregarded the belief that only the upper class could enjoy theatre as an art form and influenced by Freire, began to develop various techniques of performing theatre with oppressed communities for liberation. Boal argued that to achieve the transformation of communities through theatre, one had to change the spectators into the actors themselves. 

One common technique developed by Boal is forum theatre. Here, a group choose a social problem to create a skit about and then audience members are invited to intervene the skit to propose solutions and act out said solutions. My host organization Prajwala Sangham relied on forum theatre for our Identity and Gender workshops with female livelihood students. To begin, our participants would brainstorm common problems they face as women including lack of freedom and forced prostitution. After dividing up into groups of 4-5, each group would select a topic from the list to create a skit portraying the real situation they face. Then, the group members and audience members can bring alternative solutions to create an ideal reality. For example, one group in a workshop chose the issue of child rape and with the audience members, displayed various ways that members of the community can step in. Someone can call the police, remove the child from the situation, or pour boiling water over the attempted rapist.

There are many benefits to using theatre:

  1. It appeals to all people from different backgrounds (education, castes, socioeconomic classes, etc.)
  2. A subtle way to speak about the unspoken issues within the community. 
  3. The main message can reach a large audience entertainingly and engagingly. 

But the audience is only watching. By incorporating participatory techniques, the audience is actively engaged, able to act alongside the actors or suggest ways the scenes can be altered. Collectively and individually, the audience can imagine how changes in their behavior can radically change their daily lives through role-playing. As well, dialogues among the audience can provoke critical thinking in addressing violence against women and enhancing the knowledge on how to deal with these issues in their respective communities. 

By learning through participation, reflection, and sharing personal experiences, participants can gain personal insights and practice new ways of handling situations differently. Also, their perspective on gender roles in their relationships with family, friends, and colleagues can be transformed. For women, their voices and confidence can be strengthened. For men, they can become aware of their power over women and how their silence or unwillingness to confront this power can perpetuate violence against women. 

There is promise with this innovative methodology. However, with huge complex social issues that is gender inequity or gender-based violence, change can’t and will not happen immediately. However, if one person’s mindset or behavior is changed, that can have a profound impact on generations to come. 

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Nithya graduated from Santa Clara University (SCU) in 2018 with a double major in Public Health Science and Psychology. While at SCU, she was awarded the Global Social Benefit Fellowship from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Nithya and her research partner conducted action research to assess the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise that created a mobile communication platform for other organizations in the development sector. They travelled to three Indian states, visited over 20 communities, and conducted 55 interviews over the span of two months. With that research, they developed social impact case studies detailing how clients use Awaaz.De's services, prepared recommendations to Awaaz.De, and created a mobile social impact assessment framework. Thrilled to return back to India as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Nithya can’t wait to return to Hyderabad, hone her Telugu speaking skills, and reconnect with family. In her spare time, she loves watching the Golden State Warriors, petting baby goats, and mastering the art of making dosas.

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